Illustration by Josephine Moir

CW: sexual assault

Here is a fun thing that I was definitely planning on writing about at some point– considered holding for a ~big reveal~ to my adoring fans – but ultimately decided that it’s just WAY too big a part of my life to avoid referencing entirely until I write my damning exposé: there is a Big Thing in my life, and that is being a survivor of sexual assault.

I say sexual assault, mostly because it is a general term that feels roughly accurate, even though I know that the word that I should arguably be using instead (4 letters, starts with R) is more accurate. It just feels bigger to me, and a lot scarier, and while I strongly contemplated just using that and avoiding this whole paragraph entirely, the fact is that I don’t feel totally able to yet. So we’ll stick with that, for now.

I made the decision to come to university and be quite open about this Big Thing, for pretty similar reasons to what I’ve outlined above: my life is easier when in addition to the burden of the Big Thing, I don’t also have to carry the burden of hiding the Big Thing. A lot of things about me make considerably more sense with this contextual information. It’s just a part of my life, which is shit, but self-censoring and trying to spare other people the potentially uncomfortable responsibility of acknowledging the fact that it is shit was not serving me at all. I’m a natural over-sharer and a bad liar, so conversations with people who I am trying to get to know are incredibly difficult if I’m actively deciding to side-step this Big Thing. I am willing to reference it parenthetically, to sort of indicate it and move on, with pretty much anyone now. This isn’t the right choice for everyone, definitely, but it makes things better for me. 

I think this is a lot to do with feeling in control of my own narrative. At school, I was nowhere near as candid about the whole thing, for a few reasons. Firstly, I hadn’t got my head around it to the level that I have now; there were words that felt scarier, and whilst I still now feel confused and guilty and uncertain about pretty much every aspect of this Big Thing, most of the time I feel roughly able to call a spade a spade, or to over-extend the metaphor, acknowledge it as some kind of gardening tool. I am making a conscious – though not entirely or even predominantly successful – effort to approach my own situation with the same respect and gravity that I would give to literally anyone else. This is hard. But I am trying. On top of this, the few times that I did try to share things with people at school ended up, to say the least, with mixed results.. I desperately needed the people around me to take it seriously, because I just couldn’t and wouldn’t do that for myself, and not everyone was able to. I needed people with whom I shared this to tell me how awful it was and I needed them to look after me. What actually happened was that I properly lost friends over it, and relationships changed because all of a sudden I was sad and anxious and less fun to be around. And on top of that, when the sex scenes in my English coursework book made me consistently unable to get through a lesson without having to go have a panic attack in the bathroom and my teacher had to report this as a safeguarding concern, school authorities took my nervousness and awkwardness in discussing the situation to mean that they were able to create their own account of what had happened. The narrative was theirs, not mine. They had decided what it was, not me. I felt like what I wanted, needed, and deserved from those around me –the friends, teachers, and systems which were meant to be protecting me – was, for the most part, completely irrelevant.  

That is not to say that everyone was like that, because they weren’t. A couple of friends in particular were brilliant; it is because of one of them and her gentle pushing that it even occurred to me that I could and should be calling what I experienced rape (I can say it sometimes!! I could say it here and not earlier in this article. There is no logic.). But in amongst a ‘Wear red for survivors’ day with approximately zero acknowledgement of the fact that these ‘survivors ’might be – shock horror – living among us (!?) and a student population who regularly described their workload as ‘traumatic’, I did not feel particularly validated. Looking back on it, I think there are ways to find it morbidly funny; me and my cute little PTSD diagnosis writing my coursework on a book that was actually very triggering and upsetting, whilst other people complained that the coursework was so long and so time-consuming that it gave them PTSD.  It’s so ironic that it makes for bad writing where I have to say ‘PTSD; and ‘coursework’ too many times. And I feel a bit mean complaining about it now, because (most) people didn’t know, and could have had no idea that this was actually such an upsettingly apt parallel. I guess my overall point is that people were thoughtless, and it made the last few months of school in particular really, really difficult. 

I initially felt a lot of guilt about telling people about this Big Thing. I thought that if it had been real, and if I had genuinely been affected by it, I wouldn’t be so willing to talk about it. But that’s just not how I function. Before, it felt like with each new person I told, I lost ownership. Sharing the story felt like sharing the proprietary rights to the story. I knew that it would change things for them, that it came with an unavoidable recalibration of their understanding of me. That no matter how good and kind their intentions were, the human instinct is to make assumptions, to fill in gaps, to construct your own narrative. I wasn’t sure of what I was trying to tell them, so how could I be sure of what they were going to hear?

I still feel that guilt now. I still feel like my openness implies that it wasn’t that bad. I still feel like I have made myself vulnerable by letting other people into this. I still feel like I am not sure of what I am trying to say – including to some people I know, who may feel more informed by reading this than they have through actual conversations about it. But I also know that this story is mine, that I get to tell it at my own pace and in my own way. And now, as I look for a way to conclude, I am embarrassingly (but also, this is an article about owning who I am, so not embarrassingly) put in mind of Hamilton. Here, I put myself back in the narrative. Cannot believe I am ending this with that. But yeah. I put myself back in the narrative.